London's transport at war
Keeping daily life moving during the worst days of the First and Second World Wars was an extraordinary achievement for London's transport operators and their staff. Their dedication to the war effort was seen in a number of ways.
Less than 48 hours after the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, a large number of London buses and their crews were 'commandeered' by the Government for home troop movements. During the Boer War (1899-1902) London's bus companies had provided many of the army's transport horses. Now that the changeover from horse to motorbus operation was almost complete, it was seen as a natural development that the companies would supply motor vehicles for military use. Within a few weeks over 300 London buses with volunteer drivers were being used in France and Belgium to carry troops to and from battle areas. Altogether nearly 1000 buses, most of them AEC B types, were used for a variety of military purposes over the next four years.
Back home London's transport systems had to cope with rapidly growing passenger traffic due to troop movements and the sudden development of war industries such as munitions. The London General Omnibus Company's bus manufacturing concern, the Associated Equipment Company (AEC), turned to the production of military vehicles and could only provide a few replacements for civilian use. The result was service cuts and considerable overcrowding on those buses that did run. There were soon serious staff shortages on the buses, trams and Underground as men enlisted for military service. The obvious answer, the employment of women, was not immediately welcomed by either the trade unions or male management. In March 1915 a temporary policy of 'women substitutes' was reluctantly agreed by the Underground. When Maida Vale station on the new Bakerloo line extension was opened in June, it was staffed entirely by women and by November London's first woman bus conductor had started work on Tillings' route 37. Women undertook all sorts of transport work, usually at equal pay with their male colleagues, but had to give up their jobs when the men came home at the end of the war in 1918-19. Few precautions were taken against an aerial attack on London in the First World War because it seemed an unlikely threat. When Zeppelin raids began in 1915 they caused more shock than damage at first, but over the next two years bombs dropped by German airships and later aeroplanes killed 670 people in London and wounded nearly 2000. The effect on the transport network was more one of disruption than physical damage, with the introduction of blackout restrictions and the first use of Tube stations as public air raid shelters.
When a second war with Germany seemed increasingly likely in the late 1930s, there was a general fear of more immediate and devastating bombing raids. In 1937, under Government instructions, London Transport set up an Air Raid Precautions Committee. By September 1938, when the Munich crisis arose, detailed defence plans had been drawn up which would allow the system to remain operational under aerial attack, with the safety of passengers and staff secured as far as possible. Floodgates were installed in Underground tunnels and emergency control centres were prepared. A year later ARP arrangements came into effect on 1 September 1939, two days before the official declaration of war.
The mass evacuation of London's children, hospital patients and expectant mothers took place in the first few days of September 1939. In four days more than 550,000 evacuees were conveyed out of the danger zone by London Transport vehicles, either to main line termini for transfer to trains or direct to the country. Some buses travelled as far afield as Northampton and Weston-super-Mare. Hospital patients were removed by Green Line coaches, which had been withdrawn on 31 August and converted within hours into ambulances.
Blackout restrictions were applied immediately and bus services were restricted or withdrawn altogether to save fuel and limit blackout working. Within four months more than 800 central area buses were lying idle. Underground, tram and trolleybus services also had to be reduced, but fortunately there was a considerable drop in passenger traffic because of the effect of the war on business and the evacuation of many offices.
Disused platforms and passageways at a number of Tube stations were converted for various special uses. At Down Street station, closed in 1932, an emergency headquarters was prepared for London Transport and the wartime Railway Executive Committee, which was later used for meetings of the War Cabinet during the Blitz. An Operations Room for London's Anti-Aircraft Command was established deep in another disused station at Brompton Road, South Kensington.
To save fuel 150 London buses (such as on the right in shot) were converted to run on producer gas during the war. This was made by injecting water into burning coal in a trailer unit towed behind a bus, 1940-1945. (1998/89507)
London Transport staff had been receiving regular ARP training in rescue, fire fighting and first aid since before the war, but in May 1940 the Board also formed its own Home Guard unit, in which nearly 30,000 employees served. As growing numbers of male staff were called up for service in the Forces, the Board began to recruit more female staff to replace them, but on a much larger scale than in the First World War. Women now took on virtually every job previously carried out by men, including labouring and heavy engineering work, but not driving which was a 'reserved occupation' and therefore less subject to staff shortages.
The long expected air raids finally began in the summer of 1940. The first bombs to damage London Transport equipment hit New Malden on 16 August and immediately demonstrated the vulnerability of the trolleybus system to aerial attack by bringing down a section of overhead wiring. Heavy bombing started on 7 September with a daylight raid on the Docks and East End. London was then bombed every night until 2 November, after which the Blitz continued intermittently until May 1941. Nearly 50,000 high explosive bombs and millions of incendiaries fell on the capital, killing more than 15,000 civilians. For every person killed, another 35 were made homeless. The damage and disruption to the London transport system was severe but never crippling. A service of some kind could nearly always be maintained, though this was more difficult with the trams and the Underground when the trackwork and tunnels were hit. Buses could always be diverted, and this was even possible with trolleybuses. Whenever necessary, maintenance crews erected new traction poles and overhead wiring quickly and efficiently, often working on their tower wagons while the Blitz raged around them.
As soon as the Blitz started, thousands of Londoners took to the Tubes for shelter. At first this was not officially encouraged, and as no special facilities had been installed, there were chaotic scenes. Gradually sheltering arrangements became properly organised with special admission tickets, bunk beds on the platforms, refreshments and, at some stations, libraries, music and live entertainment. At one there was even a newsletter, 'The Swiss Cottager', produced by the local shelterers' committee.
The Underground tunnels were not entirely safe from attack, however, and shelterers were killed in six separate bomb incidents when Tube stations were hit. On Government instructions, London Transport began building eight new tunnels at deeper level in 1940. These were to act as more secure public shelters while the war continued, but there were long term plans to use them as the basis for new express Tube lines. In fact the tunnels were used exclusively for military purposes from their completion in 1942 until the flying bomb attacks in 1944, when five were opened up as public shelters. The express Tube idea was never implemented.
London Transport not only transported and sheltered both civilians and military personnel; it also made an important contribution to the war effort through its workshops. The London Aircraft Production group was set up in 1941 in association with four motor companies to build Halifax heavy bombers. 710 were manufactured over a four-year period by a workforce of whom eighty per cent had no previous engineering experience. Over half of them were women. London Transport's building department made parts for trestle bridges, landing craft, pontoon floats, and aircraft turntables. The engineering shops at Charlton tram and trolleybus works were turned over to the manufacture of ammunition and gun parts, while the bus and coach department at Chiswick built nearly a thousand lorries, overhauled War Department vehicles and made parts for tanks. At Acton railway works London Transport overhauled landing craft motors, and repaired and converted tanks and bren gun carriers. This work reached a peak in the months leading up to the Allied invasion of Europe in June 1944. By this time London was under attack from a sinister new weapon, the 'V1' flying bomb. The heaviest 'V1' assaults were between June and August 1944, but from 8 September the Germans began using the more powerful 'V2' rocket bombs as well and continued to hit London until the end of March 1945. Damage was much less serious than during the Blitz of 1940-41, but the final months of bombing prompted another wave of evacuation and contributed to a new reduction in London Transport's passenger carrying levels, which had increased again in 1942-43 with greater mobilisation for war work and the arrival of US Forces in London.
Victory in Europe (VE Day) came on 8 May 1945, ending six years of conflict, which had taken a considerable toll on London Transport. 699 members of staff were killed on active service in HM Forces. In the air attacks on London 426 staff were killed and nearly 3000 injured. 241 road vehicles and 19 railway cars were totally destroyed by the enemy action and many others badly damaged. A vast amount of repair work to London Transport's bombed or neglected property was also necessary. Reconstruction began almost immediately but a period of post-war austerity lay ahead.